DEL BONITA, MT –  When the Del Bonita Volunteer Fire Department first received a combustible gas monitor from NorthWestern Energy, first responder Walter Barry didn’t think the department would have much use for it.

“We had never responded to a gas call,” Walter said. “We were set up just to fight wildland fires.”

However, the combustible gas monitor may have saved Walter’s life.

Walter was working in a detached garage near his house when he heard his carbon monoxide detector going off in the living space above the garage. Walter went upstairs to check the batteries.

“I’m thinking the detector doesn’t work,” he said.

He took out the batteries, which were a little old, put them back in, reset the detector, and it started going off again. Walter went back to working outside, figuring he could replace the batteries later. When he came back a few hours later, the alarm was still going off.

“It was like a light came on in my head,” Walter said. “I thought maybe I should check it with the gas monitor.”

Sure enough, the combustible gas monitor detected carbon monoxide in the living space at a level of 44 parts per million.

“If I would have just ignored it and pulled the batteries, in a few days it could have been lethal,” Walter said.

Instead, he shut off the propane line and is monitoring carbon monoxide levels.

Often called the invisible killer, carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can be lethal.

The Del Bonita Volunteer Fire Department received the combustible gas monitor at a training in August organized by NorthWestern Energy to train rural fire departments on flammable gas, carbon monoxide and other potential hazards.

The training and the donation of the monitors came after Garrett Smith, safety and environmental professional in the Missoula Division, realized many of these departments had never been trained to be natural gas first responders, and none of them had combustible gas monitors.

“They had previously been responding to hit and blowing lines and gas odor calls and were solely relying on their sense of smell to detect the presence of flammable gas,” Garrett said.

NorthWestern Energy donated combustible gas monitors to the volunteer fire departments in Browning, Babb-St. Mary and East Glacier, in addition to Del Bonita.

Del Bonita is a small department with a budget of only $7,500 per year.

“Buying a gas monitor was nowhere near on my radar,” Walter said. “It’s a great, great, great tool to have that we probably never would have bought.”

In hindsight, Walter can’t believe how nonchalant he was when the carbon monoxide detector went off.

“If I hadn’t had the monitor, I’m pretty sure I would have just pulled the batteries out,” he said.

“This really opened my eyes up to how dangerous this can be.”

Source: Northwestern Energy

Facts about carbon monoxide:

• Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas created when fuels —gasoline, wood, charcoal, natural gas, propane, oil, and methane — burn incompletely. Equipment and vehicles powered by internal combustion engines are a common source of carbon monoxide. Vehicles running in an attached garage or generators running inside a home or attached garage, can quickly produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.

• The dangers of CO depend on a number of variables, including the person’s health and activity level. Infants, pregnant women, and people with physical conditions that limit their body’s ability to use oxygen can be more severely affected by lower concentrations of CO than healthy adults would be. A person can be poisoned by a small amount of CO over a longer period of time or by a large amount of CO over a shorter amount of time.

• CO incidents are more common during the colder months.

• Proper installation, operation, and maintenance of fuel-burning appliances in the home is the most important factor in reducing the risk of CO poisoning. Make sure appliances are installed according to the manufacturer’s instructions and the local codes. Most appliances should be installed by professionals.

• Always follow the appliance manufacturer’s directions for safe operation. Have the heating system (including chimneys and vents) inspected and serviced annually by a trained service technician. Examine vents and chimneys regularly for improper connections, visible cracks, rust or stains.

• Look for problems that could indicate improper appliance operations:

 Decreased hot water supply

 Furnace unable to heat house or runs continuously

 Sooting, especially on appliances and vents

 Unfamiliar or burning odor

 Increased moisture inside of windows

• Operate portable generators outdoors and away from open doors, windows, and vents that could allow CO to come indoors.

•  Install battery-operated CO alarms or plug-in CO alarms with battery back-up in your home. Every home should have a CO alarm in the hallway near the bedrooms in each separate sleeping area. Test your CO alarms frequently and replace dead batteries. A CO alarm can provide added protection, but is no substitute for proper installation, use and upkeep of appliances that are potential CO sources.

Symptoms of CO poisoning:

• Low level CO poisoning can often be confused with flu symptoms, food poisoning, and other illnesses. Some symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, lightheadedness or headaches.

• When extremely high CO levels are present, confusion, incapacitation and loss of consciousness can occur within minutes.

• If you suspect that you are experiencing CO poisoning, get to fresh air immediately. Leave the home and call for assistance outside or from a neighbor’s home. You could lose consciousness and die from CO poisoning if you stay in the home. Get medical attention immediately and inform medical staff that CO poisoning is suspected. Call the Fire Department to determine when it is safe to reenter the home.

• Carbon monoxide alarms do not last forever.  The detecting components will lose their effectiveness after 5 to 7 years and may no longer detect carbon monoxide.  Most alarms include an “end-of-life” warning that alerts the users that the monitor needs to be replaced.  And most manufacturers include a specific timeframe for replacement.

Source: Consumer Product Safety Commission